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[VIC] Hello World, Let's Talk Paper Mario

This is a blog post written for Vanilla Ice Cream. For more information about our project, check out

This post is part one(!) of a series. On this blog, the other Cream members—Ross Houston, Dale Wones, and Brian Beebe—and I are going to spend some time picking apart some great games. First, we’ll play the game altogether and take notes talk about it, and generally hang out. Then, after digesting for a while, we’ll come together to talk through the mechanics of the game: what’s fun, what’s unique, what is the core of the game gives it its identity. This is the part of the process where we find ourselves right now. Later on, the idea is to pull these pieces back together and create a “paper prototype” of the experience.

Right now, we’re thinking of “paper prototype” means a version of the game that can be played without the aid of a computer, not necessarily made completely out of paper. We’re hoping that, as a bunch of young game designers, deconstructing and reconstructing these games will teach us a lot about what goes into making a game mechanic work, and how these mechanics tie together to make a game “feel” right. That is, if we can actually pull it off…

But here’s hoping!

So why start with Paper Mario? It’s something we talked about for a good while. For our first game, we wanted to try something unique and challenging, but not something that we’d scare ourselves off with right away. We talked first about the games we loved, and the ones we were currently playing, but once we started getting a bit too deep into talking about how we might go about making the Uncharted combat system on paper, we decided to pull back just a bit.

What it came down to was finding a game we wanted to play together, and one whose mechanics—at least for this first one—were sort of out in the open. Long story short, a JRPG seemed like the way to go from a combat standpoint. All of the systems are pretty naked. We can see the different meters and points systems and analyze them without digging them out. Also, a turn-based system seemed like it would make a natural transition to paper, but Paper Mario’s little timed events would offer us a nice challenge.

We set date and time, blew the dust out of Dale’s N64, got a pizza, some beers and started it up.

We ended up putting about 4 hours into our first play session, getting through chapter one. This means we’ve recruited 3 party members: Goombario, Kooper, and Bombette, as well as rescued the first Star Spirit, Eldstar. We defeated the Koopa bros., in their fortress, so we’ve got a dungeon and a boss battle under our collective belt.

After a few days of mulling it over, we came together to talk about mechanics and the possible direction for the prototype. We talked about the scope first: how much of the game would we like to cover with our model. The first and most intuitive idea was to prototype the single battle. It offers plenty of room for tabletop play, and it’s a small enough scope for us to start thinking about deeply about the mechanics of the fight. We’d be able to think deeply about representing the core combat as its own game, and how turn based timed attacks, party members, items, badges, and etcetera affect play.

As we moved on though, we realized that we wouldn’t be capturing the soul of Paper Mario without thinking about the RPG elements. This was especially true when thinking about exploration as a mechanic, since a good portion of the game is spent traversing the large maps.

On top of that, exploration is not entirely separate from combat. While, in true JRPG style, initiation of combat does bring you to a specific combat screen separate from the traversable world—which I’ll call the overworld—pieces of each bleed into one another. Combat can be initiated from the overworld in the form of a first strike. If the player lands a hit on an enemy in the overworld, Mario gets lands an extra blow at the start of the combat sequence, and vice-versa if an enemy lands the first strike. Party members, too, play huge roles in both settings.

Kooper, the second party member, is the first party member whose abilities help Mario progress through the world. With Kooper’s first ability, “Shell Toss,” the player is able to retrieve faraway items that were out of Mario’s reach previously. After partying up with Kooper, the player is immediately able to access pieces of the map that were blocked. This is an essential discovery moment for the player, as it introduces the idea that party members essential pieces of the puzzle—essentially keys that unlock pieces of the adventure. This is a core experience of Paper Mario. The bleeding over of combat and exploration is essential when trying to replicate the game in any real sense.

So, in deciding the scope of our prototype, while combat provides a mechanic-rich space to explore, we know we can’t leave out the overworld when trying to capture the soul of Paper Mario. It’s essential to the RPG experience. As a happy medium, we’ve decided to set out to rebuild the Koopa Bros.’ Fortress, the first dungeon, as a tabletop game.

The dungeon is a microcosm containing all of the game elements. It has exploration, combat, encounters with new characters, and unlocking areas with new party members. Moving forward, we’ll be analyzing the layout of the fortress and laying out all of its rooms, doors, and enemies as a 2D map. This will give us a guide for our prototype, and likely teach us a lot about dungeon design.

We’ll also be posting our in-depth discussion of combat in the coming days. Along with a well-balanced traditional JRPG combat system, Paper Mario utilizes some fairly unique combat elements within its genre, including the power attack system and spatial enemy layout. In the next post, we’ll be talking about how these affect gameplay, and how they can be brought to a paper prototype to capture the soul of the game.

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